SOLDIER FIELD — Even in the darkest moment of the season, Matt Nagy could see the light.
“I looked around in that locker room at the end and I looked at every one of them and it reminded me of Week 1 in Green Bay because they gave it their all, and you learn from these things,” Nagy said, referencing what previously had been his team’s toughest loss of the season. “We can’t see it right now, but I guarantee you that feeling we just had in that locker room is going to help us in the future.”
The head coach — the man who preaches “Be You” — was himself all the way to the end, even as a promising and successful Chicago Bears season came to a crashing halt on the foot of its biggest weakness, as Cody Parkey’s potential game-winning kick not only doinked off the upright, but then hit the crossbar before falling short, delivering an extra cruel blow in a story that could only be written by someone with the darkest sense of humor.
Eagles 16. Bears 15. Six uprights and one crossbar hit by Parkey in one season. Not one of them bounced the right way.
In the background, Staley, the Bears mascot, collapsed to the ground in disbelief, accurately representing a starved fan base that was finally enjoying a competitive team again.
It felt like the Bears deserved better. The players worked too hard all year to have it end like that. The other 52 players had every right to point the finger at one guy.
And yet, they didn’t. It started with long snapper Patrick Scales and holder Pat O’Donnell. Then offensive linemen Kyle Long and Bobby Massie. Many other players followed. They all publicly lifted Parkey up and had his back.
“That’s our guy,” defensive captain Akiem Hicks said. “I’m going to ride with my guy. If you have that ‘C’ on your helmet, I’m going to ride with you to the end.”
After the miss, Parkey pointed to the sky just like he does after every made kick. He looked stunned and in disbelief. But he didn’t run to the locker room. He shook the hands of opposing Eagles players. He prayed. And then he trotted off the field to a loud chorus of boos from the remaining fans at Solider Field who knew this ending was a realistic possibility.
Sports can be brutal sometimes.
“I thought I hit a great ball,” Parkey said. “Trying to play the wind.”
The wind was moving left to right. Parkey appeared dumbfounded that the ball didn’t come back to the right.
“I feel terrible. I let the team down,” Parkey said. “It’s on me. I have to own it. I have to be a man.”
Parkey couldn’t have handled the situation better. His teammates couldn’t have handled the situation better. And in some weird, twisted way their compassionate, integrity-driven reaction to a terrible situation was rewarded.
Because the kick was tipped. At least that’s what the frame-by-frame video appears to show. And that’s what Eagles defensive tackle Treyvon Hester claims. He told reporters he barely got his hand on the ball. But none of the Bears players knew that as they rushed to their kicker’s defense. Nagy didn’t know that. Even Parkey didn’t know.
So while Parkey couldn’t figure out why the ball didn’t come back to the right, there was an explanation. The trajectory and spin on the ball was altered ever so slightly.
“There’s really no answer to it,” Parkey said. “One hundred percent take that loss on me.”
His teammates weren’t willing to do that though. Not with the culture Nagy established since interviewing and accepting the Bears’ head coaching job exactly 365 days ago.
“I told (Parkey) to keep his head up,” Khalil Mack said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow for a guy in that position. You still have to know that’s a teammate. That’s your brother. You want to make sure he doesn’t take it too, too, too hard.”
Of course, the players are all human too. Parkey admitted “it’s going to sting for a while.” And while his teammates all expressed nothing but love and support, there’s no doubt they will sit back and wonder if the 2018 season would have had a better ending if the Bears just had a better kicker.
The Hester — of course his name is Hester — tip might make the miss slightly easier to swallow, but it doesn’t change the fact that the kicker position was easily the team’s biggest weakness going into the playoffs. Every one of those players knew the season could very well end with a missed field goal. Even in Sunday’s warmups, that scenario seemed like a very real possibility. Of 12 pregame field goals charted, five were missed and another one was too close to call from the press box. Not every one of Parkey’s pregame kicks were observed, but the warmup session felt shaky at best — much like the kicker’s season.
Thus, Parkey’s three made field goals in the game — from 36, 29 and 34 yards — will largely be ignored. And frankly, for an NFL kicker, those should all be automatic. So, tipped field goal or not, kicker remains the team’s biggest weakness going into an offseason in which “Super Bowl” is going to be the only expectation.
A decision to move on from Parkey seems like an easy call, even if the Bears have to swallow nearly $5.2 million in cap space to get it done. Especially when you consider that Robbie Gould, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, will not only be a free agent come March, but was at Sunday’s game with his kids, cheering on the team he still loves.
And while they probably won’t publicly admit it, at least some Bears players will feel more comfortable next season if the kicker situation is upgraded. Just don’t expect them to say anything negative about Parkey if he heads out the door.
Not in this culture. Not with Nagy in charge.
“I just told (the team) that with the change that happens, the turnover between players and coaches, every year is different, and it’s a challenge,” Nagy said. “So the one thing that we did is we let everybody know who we are now. Teams are going to know, and they’re going to feel it when they walk into Soldier Field.”
Nagy mentioned winning the NFC North as a goal that was met, but added they “didn’t hit the ultimate goal.”
“It’s not good enough. That’s not who we’re going to be. We’re going to strive to be the best,” he added. “I’m going to let it hurt right now for a little bit. I’m going to feel it, as everybody should, but it’s going to make me better.”
And with that, even in the toughest of defeats, Nagy put the NFL on notice.
With Nagy in charge, that’s exactly what the Bears should be next season.